Book Review: The Loose Ends List by Carrie Firestone

TheLooseEndsList

The Loose Ends List by Carrie Firestone. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. 352 pp. 

Seventeen-year-old Maddie O’Neill Levine lives a charmed life, and is primed to spend the perfect pre-college summer with her best friends and young-at-heart socialite grandmother (also Maddie’s closest confidante), tying up high school loose ends. Maddie’s plans change the instant Gram announces that she is terminally ill and has booked the family on a secret “death with dignity” cruise ship so that she can leave the world in her own unconventional way – and give the O’Neill clan an unforgettable summer of dreams-come-true in the process.

Soon, Maddie is on the trip of a lifetime with her over-the-top family. As they travel the globe, Maddie bonds with other passengers and falls for Enzo, who is processing his own grief. But despite the laughter, headiness of first love, and excitement of glamorous destinations, Maddie knows she is on the brink of losing Gram. She struggles to find the strength to say good-bye in a whirlwind summer shaped by love, loss, and the power of forgiveness.

Let’s start by talking about the NOVL newsletter, shall we? Not only are the folks at NOVL as ecstatic about books as I am — mayyybe even more so — they give away advance copies of books on a regular basis. There’s an entry form in the newsletter, and if you’re selected, you don’t get an email to notify you: a book shows up, out of the blue, at your door. This is the best. surprise. ever. I’m not one for unexpected company of the human variety, but if a book shows up at my door it will be welcomed with open arms.

It’s always a nice surprise to receive a free book, but it’s oh-so-much better when said book is good. And The Loose Ends List is better than good. It’s beautiful and fierce and heartbreaking.

The way that Maddie and her family joke, fight, and have the time of their lives together made me miss my cousins and how much time we spent together when we were kids. People move and life gets in the way, and all of a sudden the people you love so much become a thought bobbing in your brain: I wonder how she’s doing. I should really call her. And we (at least, I) never make the time. I admired Maddie’s grandmother for her desire to have the whole family together one last time, and I was envious of them all for having that opportunity.

Maddie’s relationship with her grandmother is touching: respectful yet irreverent, and so full of love. My mom is my best friend, and I can’t (don’t want to) imagine saying goodbye to her. I can’t imagine dragging a goodbye out for an entire summer, not knowing when it was gong to happen. I thought Maddie’s grief was portrayed well and realistically; she tries to distract herself from it for as long as possible, then it all comes slamming down.

Because all of the other patients on the ship are also terminal cases, I knew I was going to have to say goodbye to them all, but I still wasn’t ready when it started to happen. I was a mess for the last fifty pages or so of this book, and though I was sad, I was also moved to make every moment count with the people I love. The ship’s motto, “And still we dance,” captures this book in a neat four-word package that brings so many snapshots and “snow globe moments” to mind. The characters in this book aren’t perfect, but they are alive — practically leaping off the page — and they will worm their way into your heart.

All in all: A gorgeous book. Worth reading…then re-reading when you start to take life (and people) for granted.

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Review: Not If I See You First by Eric Lindstrom

NotIfISeeYouFirst

Not If I See You First by Eric Lindstrom. Poppy. 320 pp.

Parker Grant doesn’t need 20/20 vision to see right through you. That’s why she created the Rules: Don’t treat her any differently just because she’s blind, and never take advantage. There will be no second chances. Just ask Scott Kilpatrick, the boy who broke her heart.

When Scott suddenly reappears in her life after being gone for years, Parker knows there’s only one way to react-shun him so hard it hurts. She has enough on her mind already, like trying out for the track team (that’s right, her eyes don’t work but her legs still do), doling out tough-love advice to her painfully naive classmates, and giving herself gold stars for every day she hasn’t cried since her dad’s death three months ago. But avoiding her past quickly proves impossible, and the more Parker learns about what really happened–both with Scott, and her dad–the more she starts to question if things are always as they seem. Maybe, just maybe, some Rules are meant to be broken.

I was super excited to get a copy of Not If I See You First from Novl. I’d never read a work with a blind protagonist — actually, now that I think about it, the only thing I can even think of with a blind character is The Diviners. I enjoy reading about people from all walks of life for selfish reasons (I feel like getting glimpses into as many lives as possible helps me develop empathy and understanding for people who are different than I am) but also for selfless reasons: it makes me so happy to think that there’s one less person going unrepresented in literature. As much as I love reading about situations outside of my realm of experience, it makes me feel less lonely to read about characters like me. I think it’s important to have both, and I’m happy to see a book like this on shelves.

I didn’t just like this book because some of the content was new to me, though. It’s a remarkable book overall. It’s well written, the characters are flawed yet likable, and it’s bursting at the seams with heart.

I was curious about how the author would narrate action, especially since Parker spends her life in one hundred per cent darkness. But I learned two things simultaneously: 1) how challenging and world-rocking it would be for me to adjust to life without vision the way Parker did and 2) how aware Parker was of her surroundings and how self-sufficient she’d grown to be. The narrative focuses on sounds; Parker often narrates by saying that she hears someone sitting on her left, or walking out the door, or something like that. I didn’t feel like the storytelling suffered because a sense was removed; instead, I was forced to focus on things I might normally take for granted, like breathing, pauses in conversation, and tone of voice. It’s a very internal novel — it’s told in first person, and the reader hears a lot of Parker’s fears and insecurities — but it’s also highly interpersonal as Parker spends a lot of her time trying to figure out her place, both socially and romantically.

When I read the blurb, I wondered what Scott could have done that would make Parker willing to write him off forever. I don’t want to tell you, because it’s better if it comes as a surprise, but it’s a doozy. And then to have him show up at her school, and to have to navigate a life in which she’s forced to be around him every day…it’s a lot to deal with, especially after just losing her father. I loved reading about Scott and Parker’s relationship as kids, and I loved the situations in which they were thrown together as teens. All in all, I just loved the two of them. Their story is beautiful.

But this book isn’t just about their story; it’s primarily about Parker’s story, and I love that. Too often, a book is so focused on boy-girl issues that there aren’t enough pages left for the girl to have a life of her own. Eric Lindstrom balances the two beautifully. And he leaves enough room for female friendship! Parker’s relationship with Sarah is portrayed brilliantly: devotion and insecurity on both sides, and so much love it’s heartwarming to read.

All in all: Writing this review made me want to re-read the book, and that’s always a good sign. Worth reading.

ARC Review: What We Left Behind by Robin Talley

What We Left Behind by Robin Talley. Harlequin Teen. 416 pp.

What We Left Behind by Robin Talley. Harlequin Teen. 416 pp.

Toni and Gretchen have been together for nearly two years by the time they leave for separate colleges, and their relationship has always been strong. However, as Toni begins to delve deeper into the trans community and explore what it means to identify as genderqueer, Gretchen feels as though Toni is moving in a direction that she can’t follow. Both teens strive to understand their own places in the world and how they fit together, while also grappling with the universal struggles that every college freshman faces as they move into a new phase of their lives.

Told in Toni and Gretchen’s alternating points-of-view and populated with a diverse cast of supporting characters, What We Left Behind gives voice to a range of experiences that so often go silenced or ignored. At a time when these issues are in the national spotlight, this compelling story is a powerful starting point for discussion, exploration, and empathy.

When I received a request to review this book, I said yes immediately. There have been a lot of releases dealing with gender identity lately, and I’m thrilled to see this, because I think transgender (or gender neutral, questioning, etc.) individuals have been sorely underrepresented in literature until now. I’m glad that, between more people coming out and more stories being told, my sons will grow up in a world where people who fall outside the gender binary are not a foreign concept. I can’t claim to know everything there is to know about gender identity, but I’ve had the fortune to read many narratives lately that are a start at opening my eyes. [Note: If I use a term or pronoun incorrectly, please forgive me. I’m still learning.]

Okay. Enough background. Let’s talk about this book. This beautiful, unputdownable book.

Gretchen and Toni are wonderfully written characters; they are memorable and vibrant, imperfect and alive. I could easily picture them and understand their actions, but at the same time, I didn’t always know what they were going to do. You know, like real people. Too many books can’t accomplish this; characters are either too predictable or too unrealistic. But the characters in this book (major and minor — I’m looking at you, Carroll) are brilliantly flawed and a joy to read. It’s rare to be able to truly say that characters “jump off the page,” but in this book, they do.

Toni’s gender identity is, of course, a huge focus in the book, but Robin Talley weaves so many other elements into the story that it doesn’t feel preachy or thematically one-sided. Again, just like a real person, Toni has other problems and concerns while adjusting to life at Harvard, and dealing with those in addition to choosing pronouns and maintaining a long-distance relationship starts to take its toll.

I didn’t like Gretchen as much at first. I felt like she was a sort of necessary evil, included only to show where Toni had come from. But as the book progressed, I enjoyed her journey more and more. It’s difficult to be in a relationship where you don’t feel like a priority, and Gretchen’s choice to go to college in the city of her choice — and to pursue her own path — was admirable, albeit painful.

Also, the cover is perfect. The ARC I received doesn’t have the final cover art, so I didn’t see the cover image until after I’d already finished the book. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced that before; I always see the cover first and base my initial expectations for the story off of that. (Yes, I know…”Don’t judge blah blah blah”…but I do.) And this cover, with its nostalgic, “this-is-the-block-where-I-spent-my-childhood” feel, is exactly right. (I also love the fact that it’s not immediately clear whether the sun is rising or setting.)

All in all: I loved this book. I have a place in my heart for the two main characters, and since I finished the book last week, I’ve found myself thinking of Toni multiple times, in the way an old friend crosses your mind and you wonder vaguely how he’s been. There aren’t many characters that my brain has latched on to in that way, so, combined with the other excellently-portrayed characters and themes, I’d consider this book a success. Read it.

If you buy one book this week…

…buy this one!

Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. Knopf Books for Young Readers. 608 pp.

Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. Knopf Books for Young Readers. 608 pp.

Illuminae was being heavily promoted at BEA and BookCon this past May. And when I say heavily, I mean HEAVILY. (It was the book featured on the stairs, if you know what I mean. Sadly, I didn’t get a picture. I always feel weird taking shots of strangers, and there were always multiple people on that staircase.) I saw a stack of ARCs against a wall at the Penguin Random House booth, asked if it was okay to take one, and immediately fell in love with the cover and its slew of redactions. (Also, it was a hardcover ARC. I’d never seen that before.)

It was one of the first books I read when I got home, and I could not put it down. It’s about six hundred pages, but it never feels long or boring. Everything in this book is necessary; there’s nothing in this doorstop of a novel that doesn’t need to be there, that doesn’t contribute to its sweeping space-travel-love-story-biochemical-warfare-starforce-battle bundle of awesome.

The format is brilliant: the book is presented as a dossier of evidence compiled after a large corporation attacks (and annihilates) a small space colony. There are chat transcripts, spaceship schematics, staff memos, personal journals, and many other methods of presenting information. And they work together brilliantly. The world-building is invisible, seamless, and perfect. Futuristic slang and ways of life are just absorbed and never explained; these authors are magicians, and I can never catch them working behind the scenes.

Illuminae is unlike anything I’ve read before, and I mean that in the best possible way. Every time I thought I knew where things were headed, the plot twisted in a new direction. It kept me guessing — and invested — and awake — for hours on end, and I loved it. The characters are great; I loved Kady, Ezra, James, and Byron, and AIDAN terrified me. The psychotic, power-tripping AI made me wonder if I could continue to trust Siri to navigate me in new neighborhoods. (An overreaction, I know, but when you see what AIDAN does, you might understand where I’m coming from.) The dialogue is crisp, funny, and heartbreaking. And the pages of photos after the incident on the Copernicus…a breathtaking choice that stopped me in my tracks both times I read the book.

In case you’re not getting the picture yet, I adored this book. It was just as good the second time around as it was the first. And, although I’ve already made good use of my advance copy, I plan to buy the finished copy as well. This is the kind of book I want to see in the world; it’s entertaining and smart, and I just…SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY! [Basically, although I’m on a limited book-buying budget and I technically already have a copy of this book, I think it’s important to support the sorts of projects you want to see more of. And I want to see more things like this.]

All in all: I heavily recommend this book. It made me laugh, tear up, hold my breath, and get goosebumps. I can’t wait to see where the rest of the trilogy is headed.

Keeping It Brief #2

You’ve probably noticed that I don’t post on this blog very frequently over the summer. That’s largely due to the fact that my husband is a teacher and has most summers off, so I take advantage of the opportunity to spend lots of time out and about with him and our two boys. I think there’s also a bit of residual summer vacation attitude involved: I like the idea of summer as a break from routine and obligations. And, while the blog isn’t exactly an obligation, I like the freedom to fly through books all summer without taking notes or writing reviews. I read some excellent books this summer, though (and some not-so-excellent ones…), so I want to put a few thoughts together about the two-foot stack of books I read (that’s not counting ebooks). Here goes!

Reawakened by Colleen Houck. Delacorte Press. 400 pp.

Reawakened by Colleen Houck. Delacorte Press. 400 pp.

I got an advance copy of this book at BookCon; I’d been waiting in line at Penguin Random House’s booth and things were getting so hectic that I thought I wouldn’t be able to get my hands on one. Penguin was so busy (and the crowd so crazed) that the line wasn’t moving; people kept pushing ahead, so those of us waiting patiently in line weren’t getting anywhere. They eventually started to send a security guy back and forth from the book table to the back of the line with armloads of books. And that’s how I got this one.

The cover is stunning; I’m in love with the colors and design. I was not, however, in love with the book. I was interested in the ancient Egyptian elements, and the action and adventure scenes were pretty good. Not the best I’ve ever read, but readable. The romantic aspects were…disturbing. I wanted to find out what happened to the couple, primarily because I didn’t know how the author would write them out of their particular dilemma (you know, an immortal falling in love with a mortal and all that). I didn’t feel emotionally invested, though, since they’d only known one another for a few days and their initial bond was based on a spell. I mean, Amon forces Lily to help him; she’s bound to him until he accomplishes his duty. She tells him that she will never forgive him for doing this to her. And then…she falls in love with the guy?! No, thanks. [Side note: I loved Disney’s Beauty and the Beast as a kid, but the falling-in-love-with-your-jailer theme becomes more and more troublesome for me as the years go by. I’m still working through it.]

Also, the narration drove. me. crazy. I hate it when a character TELLS me who they are instead of just showing me, and Lily tells the reader, time and time again, in lengthy asides. I kept getting yanked out of the flow of the story, and it was terribly frustrating.

Not the worst book I’ve read this year, but not a particularly great one, either.

When We Were Animals by Joshua Gaylord. Mulholland Books. 336 pp.

When We Were Animals by Joshua Gaylord. Mulholland Books. 336 pp.

I requested a copy of this one from the Novl newsletter. I love their request form because it doesn’t tell you whether or not you’ll get a copy. They send the books out in the order that requests were received, so if you requested it in time, you’ll get one with no advance notice. I love checking the mail and finding a book that I wasn’t anticipating!

This one’s about a community where all the teenagers “breach” on every full moon. The rest of the town stays indoors and the youths run, naked and wild, abandoning all rules. It’s narrated by a girl named Lumen who insists that she has never breached, that she was the only one in her town who didn’t. As she delves deeper, though, looking back on her life, some disturbing memories surface.

The writing in this book is clean, evocative, and chilling. The story is wonderfully symbolic, frightening and moving all at once. I initially thought it sounded interesting, but I enjoyed it so much more than I expected to. I’d love to teach this one to a high school or college literature class.

Another Day by David Levithan. Knopf. 336 pp.

Another Day by David Levithan. Knopf. 336 pp.

This is a companion piece to Every Day, which tells the story of A, a bodiless individual who spends every day occupying a different person’s body. He doesn’t know how he came to be this way, and he’s mostly content with it…until he meets Rhiannon, the only person so far that’s made him want to stay in one place. Another Day tells things from Rhiannon’s point of view, showing the reader how difficult it is for her to wrap her head around A’s way of existence.

I loved Every Day because of how it explores gender and relationships; A isn’t male or female, and it’s beautiful to see Rhiannon’s preconceptions about the type of person she’d fall in love with being challenged. (I describe “A” as “he” in this review because it’s generally how Rhiannon thinks. “They” is probably more appropriate, though I struggle with that one for grammatical reasons. I so wish there was a singular gender-neutral pronoun in use!)

I didn’t love this book as much as Every Day because I didn’t enjoy the writing as much. Levithan’s usually-gorgeous, almost gauzy language wasn’t as present in this book, at least for me. I also didn’t like how much Justin was villainized when he doesn’t seem like a horrible guy, just maybe not-quite-right for Rhiannon. But I still adore the concept, and I also have a major thing for reading the same story from two different points of view. You should read this one if you loved Every Day and want to hear it from a different perspective, but don’t start here.

Aaaannnd that’s it for now. More soon!

Review: Hello, Goodbye, and Everything In Between by Jennifer E. Smith

Hello, Goodbye, and Everything In Between by Jennifer E. Smith. Poppy. 256 pp.

Hello, Goodbye, and Everything In Between by Jennifer E. Smith. Poppy. 256 pp.

On the night before they leave for college, Clare and Aidan only have one thing left to do: figure out whether they should stay together or break up. Over the course of twelve hours, they’ll retrace the steps of their relationship, trying to find something in their past that might help them decide what their future should be. The night will lead them to friends and family, familiar landmarks and unexpected places, hard truths and surprising revelations. But as the clock winds down and morning approaches, so does their inevitable goodbye. The question is, will it be goodbye for now or goodbye forever?

Acquiring this book was a sort of fortunate accident: Jennifer E. Smith was signing at BEA, and her line was short when I walked by. I’d been seeing her covers online for a while, and they looked just cutesy and quirky enough to catch my eye. I figured this would be the perfect way to give her a shot: no financial investment, no time constraints involved with borrowing from the library, you know? I didn’t have anything to say when I met her since I’d never read one of her books before, but she was very polite, going so far as to thank me for coming (authors really are a gracious bunch most of the time!).

I’m sorry to say, though, that this book did just about nothing for me. The writing is painfully simple and the characters are barely-developed. I almost gave up halfway through, but kept reading out of curiosity, just to see if it would get better or more interesting…and the best I can say is that it’s an easy read, so it didn’t take me very long, and I didn’t waste much time on it. I feel terrible for not having anything nice to say, but if I only reviewed books that I liked, this blog would be terribly one-sided. Also, you’d have no idea where my tastes fall, so you wouldn’t know whether or not to consider a book that I adored.

I think there’s a target audience for this book and I’m just not it. People who like simple, easy love stories will probably enjoy this. I think it would also be good as a “Hi-Lo” book (high interest level, low reading level) because it features characters freshly out of high school but is written at maybe a late-middle-school level. I think there are benefits to books like this one, just not for me. (I hope that makes sense.)

All in all: Not my cup of tea, but if I were still teaching high school, I’d recommend it to a certain type of student. It could be useful to boost confidence in someone who struggles with reading.

Review: Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon. Delacorte Press. 320 pp.

Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon. Delacorte Press. 320 pp.

I’m still upset about the fact that Pushing Daisies was cancelled. I thought it was a fun show, whimsically clever, but mostly I was intrigued by the idea of a love story in which the two lovers could never come into physical contact — upon penalty of death. I’m sad that the show never had a chance to really build momentum and viewership (the writers’ strike took place early in its first season) because I had never seen anything like it before and was enthralled. It still drives me crazy not to know where the writers were going to go with things. When I read the description of Everything, Everything, I knew I had to get my hands on a copy. I mean, a book about a couple who can never touch? Maybe this would allow me to finally put my Pushing Daisies curiosity to rest! (It didn’t. But the book is a beautiful thing in its own right, so I’m not disappointed.)

This is a great book. For someone who’s grown up in a bubble of isolation, Madeline is a surprisingly positive, well-adjusted girl. She’s not perfect, which I appreciated, but she’s still a character that you can root for, and I enjoyed being along for a part of her journey. Because Madeline’s world is so small, the simplest things hold a world of significance. A glance, a smile, a change in posture: all of these things become enormous aspects of Maddy and Olly’s courtship. And the scenes with Madeline’s face and hands pressed up against the window, her entire body straining to be as close to Outside as possible, are heartbreaking.

I am in love with the idea of falling in love with someone based on their mind and ideas and sparkling, witty conversation. The sketches, medical reports, notes, IMs, etc. make this a quick read, but they’re clearly not there for filler; they move the story along in a simple yet effective manner.

It’s difficult to say much about the story without giving away the big things, but let me say this: I saw the ending coming about halfway through the book. And it didn’t take away from the story as much as you might expect. When a book has such a huge, life-or-death sort of thing hanging in the balance, twists and turns of plot mean a lot, and it’s terrible to have things spoiled, even if it’s by your own brain. But having more than an inkling of where things were headed didn’t ruin the book because the writing, and the characters’ reactions to what happens, were strong enough to carry things.

All in all: Worth reading. An adorable love story and a moving, heartbreaking story of family and loss.